NEW LONDON >> Nico Ragaini came into Tuesday’s Class L state quarterfinal as the state’s all-time leader in receptions.
For New London to hold the senior to just two catches was quite a feat. Of course, as those teams that reside in the Southern Connecticut Conference have known for years, Ragaini can beat you in so many different ways.
The senior rushed for a pair of touchdowns, returned a punt for another score and of course made sure one of those two receptions resulted in a touchdown. All told, No. 6 seed Notre Dame-West Haven pounded No. 3 New London 44-7 at Cannamela Field.
“He’s a great football player, as good an offensive football player as there is in Connecticut,” Notre Dame coach Tom Marcucci said. “There is no doubt about it. He’s up there with the best players I’ve ever coached, with Tarek Saleh, Cooper Gardner, Scott Mitchell, Sean Goldrich, all those guys.”
Incredibly, Notre Dame (8-3) held New London (9-2) without a first down until there was under 3 minutes left in the game. At that point, the Whalers had just 40 yards of total offense before finally scoring with 45 seconds left in the game.
“Obviously, our schedule was tougher than theirs was,” said Ragaini, who now had 216 catches.
“We knew that if we came in and punched them right in the face from the beginning that they would probably back down and that’s exactly what happened.”
Said New London coach Juan Roman: “Everyone and their mother was saying, ‘This is the team you don’t want to play.’ So we go out there and shoot ourselves in foot and they were hot. Like the NCAA tournament, the hot team and they came in and got after us.”
So Notre Dame gets a rematch with No. 2 New Canaan, the defending champion in the semifinals Monday at 6:30 p.m. in New Canaan, which won 51-27 last season.
“Obviously New Canaan is the big dog in Class L,” Ragaini said. “Last year, they really gave it to us. We have had a chip on our shoulder a little bit. We are ready whoever we get, we will play as if we are playing the best team in the state. We don’t care who it is. We just want to prove we can hang with anyone.”
Similar to last year’s quarterfinal-round win against Harding, Notre Dame went on the road in inclement weather and went old-school: ran the ball between the tackles. Josh Witkowsky had a game-high 118 yards on 27 carries and a touchdown.
“You know we are not built for that. We are a little bit undersized,” Marcucci said. “He (Witkowsky) is a hard-nosed runner. He can play in any era that kid.”
The Whalers hurt their own cause with five turnovers, including the opening kickoff. Ragaini scored six plays later.
New London quarterback Melquann Gomez, who injured his ankle in the loss to Norwich Free Academy on Thanksgiving, was under duress most of the game.
Ragaini scored the next two touchdowns for Notre Dame on another 2-yard run and a 50-yard punt return.
“I touched the 50 and the two guys on the edge set me up perfectly,” Ragaini said. “I had the wall right there, and I was coming around the corner and my boy Nikki (Spadacenta) had a little crackback block that got me wide open. It was awesome.”
Ragaini ended any hope of a comeback when he caught a 35-yard TD pass, beating out cornerback Monolito Johnson for possession to make it 30-0 early in the third quarter. Then the Whalers fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Witkowsky scored to put the game out of reach.
And Notre Dame, after starting the season 0-2, is now one game away from a state finals berth for the third straight season.
Notre Dame-West Haven 44, New London 7
(at New London)
Notre Dame-West Haven 6 18 20 0 44
New London 0 0 0 7 7
NDW Nico Ragaini 2 run (kick failed)
NDW Nico Ragaini 2 run (kick failed)
NDW Nico Ragaini 50 punt ret
NDW Christopher Elias 2 run (kick failed)
NDW Nico Ragaini 35 pass from Christopher Elias (pass failed)
NDW Joshua Witkowsky 2 run (Jared Gallbronner kick)
NDW Ryan Smith 90 run (Gallbronner kick)
NL Jacob Commander 2 run (Xavier Alvarez kick)
Team records: New London 9-2; Notre Dame-West Haven 8-3.